Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Marketism and Marxism

By Tom Kando

Abram De Swaan, professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam, has an interview-article in the Nov-Dec. Issue of the Dutch magazine Hollands Diep, in which he discusses Marketism. A great word.

Europe, like America, is in the throes of a general attack of what De Swaan calls Marketism at all levels of the government, the economy and society. As in America, more and more people believe that pure market economics - the Adam Smith-Milton Friedman model if you will - can solve ALL problems.

De Swaan’s word “Marketism” is very apt, if for no other reason than because it is so similar to Marxism - that OPPOSITE paradigm which for 70 years dogmatically ruled and destroyed a huge chunk of the world, including the Soviet Union and my own country of birth - Hungary.

De Swaan wonders how it is possible that “in an open society, one paradigm - call it Marketism - has gotten such a hold of the people, even though one should know that it is in many ways an illusion.”

This statement strikes me the way lightning would. Something which one already knows to be true, but which is stated with such clarity that its truth becomes even more inescapable.

....only, sadly, it is even more true in America than it is in Western Europe. Here, the Sarah Palins, Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs, Fox News, and their millions of Tea Party and many Republican followers not only share a conservative economic ideology - they are nothing less than fanatic zealots in their advocacy of absolute and pure market economics.

To them, Marketism has become a religion, a blind faith, unconnected to empirical facts. In this, they differ from scholars such as Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, or even Alan Greenspan, who had the decency to admit that he was wrong, after the banking system which he had de-regulated collapsed.

In America, we have people, ranging from know-nothing ignoramuses to powerful governors (e.g. Rick Perry in Texas) who would abolish all taxes.

De Swaan may not like the trend in Holland, but I can assure him that the disease of Marketism is not nearly as virulent over there as it is here.

De Swaan goes on to explain the obvious: “I am a strong supporter of the idea of the free market. But I differ from Marketists in that I also support all sorts of other ideas.... Marketism says nothing about its own boundaries. It says nothing about what is outside the marketplace, for instance the arts, foreign policy, issues of war and peace, the environment, public safety, law and punishment, and so forth. It says nothing about the bonds which people develop in the context of family, neighborhood, friendship groups and profession. It says nothing about associations, about civil society. For that, one needs other perspectives, also in order to prevent the free market idea from spilling over into societal sectors where it does not belong..”

Quite so. And again, I like the juxtaposition of these two words, these two “-isms”: Marketism and Marxism: Both launched by serious scholars, both with merit, then both perverted into religions, into excesses which do violence to reality, hurt millions of people, and eventually collapse. leave comment here

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dear Oprah

by Madeleine Kando

You don’t know me but I know you of course. My name is Sabrina and I am a big fan of your show.

I have heard that you have difficulty finding enough room in your house for the $315 million dollars that you make each year. That you would need a space the size of a 35 car garage to keep all those dollar bills.

My brother and sister and I all have to share a bedroom, so I know what it’s like to have a space problem. I have read that you have given $52 million to charity. That’s awesome. (I asked my daddy why we don’t give a third of our $30,000 income to charity, like you. But he said that if we did that, we wouldn’t have enough money left over for food. That’s pretty stingy, don’t you think?)

So here is my suggestion: Why don’t you do the reverse? Why don’t you keep only the dollar bills that fit in a 2 car garage? That’s still a lot of bills, my dad told me. It would be so much, in fact that it could feed OUR family of four for the next 20 years.

You see, this way your space problem would be solved and you wouldn’t have to build a 35 car garage.

You could mention this brilliant idea to some of your celebrity friends. I am sure they have similar space issues. Will Smith, (I know, I have real a crush on him too), makes $80 million. He would have to build a 9-car garage. And Johnny Depp, who makes $72 million, would have to build an 8-car garage, poor man.

This idea would be very useful for some of my favorite actresses too, like Cameron Diaz, who makes $50 million and Jennifer Aniston who makes $27 million. So you see, they would save so much space by giving up anything that doesn’t fit in their standard 2-car garage.

In fact, if you and your celebrity friends sent that extra money to Haiti (they have lots of room there for dollar bills, and I am sure they would take it off your hands without charging you for storage), they could buy food for every single one of their 10 million inhabitants for quite a while. Wouldn’t that be awesome?

I think you should seriously consider my proposal, Oprah. This way, you would still end up with about 600 times more money than my dad. Granted, he doesn’t have your space problem, having only ONE old beat up car, but hey, you cannot have it all in life, can you?



leave comment here

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Class Warfare

By Tom Kando

Recently, Madeleine posted a piece “Why do we Never Learn?” and a commentator wrote back: “Gramsci nailed the answer to the question: Why don’t those who are exploited act on the basis of their exploitation? Because the ideas of any age are the ideas of the ruling class. In America we can’t even use the word “class.”

Let’s talk about class, and other invidious distinctions: There are two ways in which people can be set up against each other through invidious distinctions: (1) The “horizontal” or “side-by-side” separation of groups from each other, for example religion against religion, ethnicity against ethnicity, region against region, gay against hetero, American against immigrant, Republican against Democrat, etc.

(2)“Vertical” or hierarchical rankings, for example social classes.

Invidious distinctions cause conflict and the vilification of religious, racial, sexual and other groups. Some groups become protected. After a while it becomes taboo to pick on certain ethnic, sexual and other categories. So new punching bags are found.
A few years ago, because the French didn’t support our Iraq folly, late night comedians like Jay Leno and Dennis Miller became popular ridiculing the French (they called them dirty, cowardly and lazy, haha).
Now, the public employees (and their unions) have become a popular target - they are called lazy, unproductive, they get fat pensions, etc.
“Commies” are no longer available, but attacking “socialists” works well.

But there is one invidious distinction for which Americans have ALWAYS had a blind spot: Social classes. Anonymous is so right!

The horizontal separations which pit group against group are destructive, divisive, immoral, and they serve no useful purpose. It is tempting to say that they are a divide-and-rule strategy for the ruling plutocracy, but that’s a bit simplistic.

But one thing is clear: the hierarchical distinction between social classes is incredibly important and real. It is about, injustice, oppression, concentration of power and wealth, exploitation, superiority and inferiority.

And yet, there is hardly any real awareness of social class in America. Oh sure, everyone knows that there is a middle class. But real class consciousness? Zero. And an appreciation of the enormous extent to which your life chances are determined by your social class? Or how social class is reproduced from one generation to the next? Maybe a few Sociology students who took Social Stratification know this.

But most of us continue to believe, blindly, that there are no social classes here. Because in the land of opportunity, anyone can become rich, if he works hard enough. This is called American Exceptionalism. And anyone who dares to talk about social class is said to be engaging in class warfare - positively un-American!

Take a look at the recently released report of the bipartisan deficit reduction commission appointed by Obama: Guiding principle #1: Keep government spending below 21% of GDP. Guiding principle #2: reduce corporate taxes. Guiding principle #3: increase taxes for the middle class, for example by reducing the home mortgage interest deduction. It’s shameless. They don’t even try to hide their agenda any more: reduce the taxes of the rich and increase the taxes of the working class.

Well, there is at least one group which possesses class consciousness, maintains class solidarity, acts upon its self-interest and engages in effective class warfare: the plutocracy. leave comment here

Sunday, November 14, 2010


by Madeleine Kando

Once upon a time there was a father and a mother who had ten children. They were all beautiful and smart. But one of the children was not only beautiful and smart, he was also big, strong and very wicked. He always wanted more than his fair share.

The children were very fond of apples (they were lucky, they lived in New England, so apples were aplenty). They each got one beautiful, red, shiny apple for their birthday. The beautiful, smart AND wicked boy was’nt happy with this arrangement. He really felt that he should get more. He eyed the other children’s apples and thought: ‘Why don’t I get all of them? I am smarter, more beautiful AND I am wicked!!’

Since he was extremely clever and manipulative, he convinced the father and mother that he really deserved more than one apple. He managed to get them to give him five of the apples! What with being so big and all, he really needed to eat a lot more than the other children, he said.

The other nine children were upset but they had to make do with the remaining five apples. They just had to cut them and got half an apple each.

The children grew bigger what with all the apples they had been eating on their birthday, especially the handsome, smart AND wicket boy. But one day, the mother and the father said: ‘Children, we have no money left. We cannot buy food. You need to give us five apples or we will starve.’

The beautiful, smart AND wicked boy was so clever! He said: ‘I will give you two apples because I love you so much.’ The other nine children had to chip in to make up the remaining three apples. They each gave a third of the half apple they had, which didn’t leave much, to be sure.

The father and the mother were so impressed with the generosity of the beautiful, smart AND wicked boy! He had given two apples, not just a measly sliver of an apple. (They all had forgotten that he still had three shiny, red apples left!) They gave him special privileges, and when their birthday came around and it was time for apples again, he didn’t not hesitate to take five of the ten birthday apples for himself once more.

The wicked boy had now eight apples, the three from his last birthday and the five that he took, all for himself. Since there were only ten apples total, the other nine children only got half an apple each. That and the sliver of an apple left from their last birthday didn’t even add up to one whole apple for each one of them!

The brothers and sisters realized that if things continued like this, the wicked boy would end up with all the apples in the world and there wouldn’t be any left for anyone else. They decided to finally take matters in their own hands.

They took the axe that they used to cut apple wood, went up to the beautiful, smart AND wicked boy’s room and, without hesitation chopped off his head. They cut up his body in many pieces, just like they had had to do with the few apples that he he had left them.

The deluge of apples they found in his room were devided amongst all of them, their children and grandchildren and they buried the apple cores in the orchard where soon new apple trees grew. They buried the beautiful, smart AND wicked boy under one of the apple trees and wrote on his tombstone: ‘Here lies the smart, beautiful AND wicked boy. He made the fatal mistake of wanting too much. May he rest in pieces. leave comment here

Thursday, November 11, 2010

...and Private Business is NOT inefficient?

By Tom Kando

We are incessantly reminded that much of the government consists of inefficient, featherbedding, useless job-retention programs. And you mean to tell me that the private sector is different? Ha! Go tell that to someone dealing with an insurance company.

I recently had a minor fender bender. So I first called my insurance broker, who had signed me up with my insurance company. I don’t know why I need a broker. The first and last thing Roberta, one of the broker’s assistants, told me when I called, was to get in touch with the insurance company directly.

Which I did. I called them, in Seattle or in Dallas, or some other far away place.

Okay, so I file the minor claim (for a repair of a few hundred dollars). Debbie in Dallas tells me that my claim will be forwarded to the adjuster in the San Francisco office - Susie so-and-so. She is the one with whom I will have to deal.

So for the next couple of days I exchange e-mails with Susie in San Francisco.

Then, I get a call from Bill, a local Sacramento adjuster. He is the one handling my claim, wanting to look at my car, etc. Again, we talk on the phone and e-mail each other for a while.

Today, I get an e-mail from Susie that my case is now in the hands of Mary, another gal in the San Francisco office. So I call and e-mail Mary. But her answering machine tells me that if she doesn’t get back to me within a day, I should talk to the head of her team, Linda.

See what I mean?

People say that, unlike government, private business has an incentive to be efficient, because it must make a profit.

American business has been working on improving its productivity for years. We have all experienced the massive job outsourcing, each time we talk to someone in New Delhi or in Manilla when we call customer service. Such outsourcing has caused a great deterioration in the quality of service. Getting to talk to a human being on the phone has become difficult, and when you are dealing with someone on the other side of the globe, you can’t drive to the customer service counter to air your complaint.

Do the seemingly unnecessary and bureaucratic duplications which I just described mean that even more American employees should be laid off?

I don’t think so. The problem is not “featherbedding.” It is inefficiency. Companies already fire people at will. Unions have lost 90% of the clout they enjoyed half a century ago.

Efficiency is not a prerequisite for profits and fat CEO compensations: Those can be achieved by (1) jacking up premiums (or the price of whatever you sell), (2) denying claims (or treatment, or whatever your product is), and (3) outsourcing jobs, i.e. making things more inconvenient for the customer. Efficiency, my foot! leave comment here

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why Do We Never Learn?

by Madeleine Kando

I come from a pampered country, a country that I call a ‘flopsy bunny’ nation. Many countries in Northern Europe are 'flopsy bunny' nations. We saw the French protest not too long ago, because their government wanted to raise their retirement age to 62! I do admire the French tradition of taking their demands to the street, but many of us here in the US were scratching our heads and wondering on which planet the French thought they lived.

Americans, you see, are hardworking, no-nonsense, pragmatic individuals. Their history is one of survival. Words like ‘pampered’, ‘lazy’, ‘spoiled’, don’t come to mind when I think of ‘Americans’. The reason they are like that is complex, but I suppose one of the reasons they work hard is that they think they can get ahead. They can improve their lives.

Unfortunately, this has turned into an illusion. The American Dream is dead. This simple expression, ‘The American Dream”, was alive and well for decades, when millions of foreigners came here in order to pursue it. But the definition of the American Dream is that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone”, not just for the few.

The American Dream has turned into a nightmare. Americans work harder than ever. Women and wives work, not by choice but by necessity. Since there is no paid maternity leave in America, women barely have time to plop out their babies before they have to go back to work.

So what happened? What changed? If you work hard, spend energy doing something, like assembling a car, writing software, cleaning a restaurant.. aren’t you producing something? Who benefits from the value of that product? Shouldn’t it benefit the person that spends all that energy producing it by giving him money for his labor so that he can buy some of those products?

The American Dream turned into a nightmare when hard working Americans started to get paid less and less. They produced more because they worked harder, but they got paid less.

Since Americans are humans, they need shelter and food to live. They need a car to go to work. So the only thing they can do to just live, is borrow money. That’s fine and dandy as long as you are able to pay back the expensive money you borrow. But then the housing market collapses and your collateral vanishes overnight.

People get frustrated. You feel cheated. You see the government bail out the banks who lent you that expensive money while you have to foreclose on your house. No wonder you get angry. You get angry at the government. You don’t realize that you are barking up the wrong tree. Because, after all, if your salary had been adequate, had been a true reflection of what your labor is worth in a free market, you wouldn’t have had to borrow money in the first place.

That is what I call ‘The Amerian Nightmare’. Slowly the earnings of Americans went down, even though the economy grew. It grew, but only for a small portion of the population. The super rich got richer. Like a balloon with a blockage: all the air got stuck in a tiny part of the balloon while the rest is being asphixiated.

Gone are the days when the hardworking American had bargaining power. Gone are the unions. The idea that one of the jobs of the Government is to protect citizens against the excesses of capitalism never gets talked about. Let’s be honest, Government SHOULD redistribute some of the wealth in a capitalist society. Redistribute it by offering affordable education, affordable health care, affordable housing.

All we hear is ‘Government is too big’. The Government is blamed for everything. After the latest mid-term elections, things have gone from bad to worse. With this new Republican majority in the House and so many seats gained in the Senate, we will see even more inequality in this nation. What blows my mind is that it is the hardworking American that I so admire that has voted to put the very people in power that will tighten the noose around their necks even more. leave comment here

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Million, Billion, Schmillion...what’s the difference?

By Tom Kando

The political flap du jour is the accusation that President Obama is spending $200 million a day to visit India, and that the administration has ordered the navy to deploy 34 ships for the event, i.e. one tenth of the entire US Navy (See Sacramento Bee, Nov. 6, 2010). The source of this outlandish accusation is an obscure Indian agency, and American conservatives eagerly ran with it, and magnified it. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Backmann, the frightening candidate for House Majority Leader, has repeated these allegations as facts. Glenn Beck has multiplied the number by ten, to arrive at a total price tag of $2 billion for Obama’s entire trip. The problem, once again, is stupidity: We live in a culture which is increasingly illiterate and innumerate.

Most people - and this apparently includes radio and TV demagogues with millions of followers, and congress people who represent millions of people - barely understand the difference between words such as “million” and “billion.” After all, it’s only a one-letter difference.

In her blockbuster movie “Contact,” Jodie Foster says that “she traveled billions and billions of light years away,” or something to that effect. Of course she meant millions, since the total size of the Universe is only about 10 to 13 billion light years.

But what the heck, a million and a billion are both “a lot,” so who cares if one is a thousand times larger than the other, right?

It’s the same with the current flap about Obama’s travel expenses. The trip may very well cost over $10 million a day. That’s roughly what President Clinton’s overseas trips cost. It’s a lot. But it’s one twentieth of the accusation.

In my book, even $10 million a day is extravagant. I know, security is very expensive, the President has a huge entourage, setting up such a trip takes months of expensive preparations, etc. Still, the extravagant expenses of today’s heads of state, CEOs and other big wigs will be remembered, centuries from now, the same way that we recall pharaohs, Roman emperors, the French Louis Kings and other despots from the past: squandering grotesquely, while the masses barely get by. But this is another topic.

My topic today is the cacophony of our illiterate and innumerate culture. And what else do you expect, when education is one of our country’s lowest priorities?

I realize that many people struggle valiantly to go to college, and that millions who would desperately want to get an education beyond high school are deprived of it due to circumstances beyond their control. At the same, radio and TV blowhards like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck announce the fact that they never went to college as a badge of honor. Even comedian Jay Leno proudly reminds us of this sometimes. They probably feel that this, somehow, makes them part of “the common people,” as opposed to pointy-headed intellectuals like Obama and all those liberal professors. The insinuation is that being uneducated is cool.

Years ago I read about a stone-age tribe in New Guinea called the “Dani.” They knew three numbers: “One,” “Two,” and “Many.”

But don’t worry, most of my students are way, way better at math than that. leave comment here

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Whose Fault Is It All?

By Tom Kando

The election is a big Republican victory.

The near-consensus among voters was that everything is the fault of (1) politicians and (2) the government. The Right focuses on “Big Government” as the culprit, the Left argues that the government is too timid, and “centrists” say that the right and the left are too polarized, and unwilling to work together.

But EVERYONE agrees that the fault lies with politicians, i.e. with the government. They are all “on the take” (from lobbyists) and we must “throw the rascals out.”  Convenient.

Aren’t YOU and I the ones who ELECT the politicians? For a decade we elected George W. Bush and lots of Republicans, then we elected Obama and many Democrats, and now went back to electing a lot of Republicans.

In California , we recalled Gray Davis 8 years ago and elected Arnold, and now we elected a Democrat again. Have things worked out well for us? The economy, the deficit, unemployment?

People get the government they deserve. Thomas Jefferson’s words, quoted even by intellectuals like Jay Leno (sarcasm here). The cliché is true, as most clichés are. So it’s not the politicians’ fault or “the government’s” fault. It’s OUR fault.

First of all, half of us don’t even vote. Then we gripe about “the rascal” politicians. And most of those who vote are ignorant and brainwashed.

When I see skits like Jay Leno’s “Jaywalk,” I feel like crying. Poor source for my argument, you say. Jay probably selects the dumbest people he can find. True.

But even if the public level of stupidity is only ONE TENTH of what we see on Jay Leno, it’s a disaster. Some recent answers given to Leno: (Young interviewees seem to be the most abysmally ignorant).

No idea who the Vice President is;
no idea how may Supreme Court Justices there are;
...or how many senators;
no idea which two countries border on the US;
our enemy in World War Two was France;
World War Two was in the 19th century.

With such an electorate, is it a wonder that the country is politically dysfunctional?

I am no beacon of knowledge either. I have a PhD, but even I can’t answer all of Leno’s Jaywalk questions. I recently thought that there were 11 Supreme Court Justices (Oops).
When I went over my election ballot recently, I had no idea who about one third of the candidates were (local school board candidates, etc.). But at least I try.

The problem is that we are lazy (or too busy; good excuse). We vote on the basis of the ads which bombard us, instead of doing our homework. Negative ads influence us the most, and campaigns are bought by the richest corporate contributors. It’s all about $$$.

And another problem: There is no viable populist alternative to the Democratic Party. Our tweedle-tweedledum two-party system is totally unsatisfactory. Proof: the ever-growing number of independents.
When we get angry at the Democratic Party because it is cozy with the plutocracy instead of speaking up for us, our protest vote goes to the Republicans - who are even more corrupt. In a recent telethon, Glenn Beck urged all the little Tea Party people to send their checks to the US Chamber of Commerce. Maybe he should have specified his favorite Fortune 500 recipients. Nuts!

The solution? Education. Without an educated electorate, democracy doesn’t work.

Look at what just happened: We are in a severe economic recession, so we go BACK to the party and the policies which CAUSED the problems in the first place. It’s like picking up smoking again to cure your lung cancer. Good luck with that! leave comment here